Cisco ‘Founding Father’ Rick Justice Remembered For Building Customer-Focused Culture, Legacy Of Trust

‘He made us all better people,’ former Cisco CEO John Chambers tells CRN about his longtime business partner and best friend, Rick Justice, who passed away following his battle with cancer.


Rick Justice, a longtime member of Cisco’s executive leadership team, has passed away following a 17-year battle with prostate cancer.

Justice started his career at Cisco in 1996 and rose to the rank of executive vice president of worldwide operations. He stepped down from his day-to-day responsibilities in 2009 due to his ongoing cancer battle, but stayed on as part-time advisor to then Cisco chairman and CEO John Chambers until he retired in 2013, marking a more than 16-year tenure with the San Jose, Calif.-based tech giant.

“Your currency as a leader is based on track record, your relationships, and trust. When those three things come together, there’s almost nothing you can’t achieve. [Justice] was the best example of this,” former Cisco CEO John Chambers told CRN in an interview on Monday.

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Chambers called Justice more than a business partner; he was his closet friend. “He was my perfect balance from a business perspective and [Justice] got better and better under stress. We went through good times and bad times together,” Chamber said. ”We always had the same values for how to treat people. It makes you so proud of the life he lived. He changed people’s lives.”

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Justice (pictured above in 2009) spent 22 years with Hewlett-Packard in a variety of sales and marketing leadership roles, including head of HP Worldwide Enterprise Sales, prior to joining Cisco in 1996. From 2014 to 2018, Justice served on the board of directors for content management provider Alfresco Software.

The tech veteran held a bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering from Santa Clara University and an MBA from Stanford University.

Kent MacDonald, senior vice president of strategic alliances at longtime Cisco partner Long View Systems, called Justice a “founding father” of Cisco. MacDonald said the longtime EVP was instrumental in the “building of a world class sales team that saw Cisco take a dominate market position.”

Chambers wanted to build a strong, customer-focused culture at Cisco around doing the right thing for partners and end customers, he said, noting that he had heard a lot of good things at the time about Justice in the early 1990s.

Chambers tried unsuccessfully to hire Justice initially. On his second try, he was able to recruit Justice. “We really built a go-to-market machine. The entire time [Justice] was with me, we were rated number one in terms of channel partner ratings of all high-tech companies for over a decade, which was really unheard of,” he said.

Chambers told CRN that he and Justice shared some traits -- like both being better under pressure -- but Justice was also very detailed-oriented and analytical. “Between the two of us, we didn’t miss,” he said.

The two knew that Justice was sick for a little while before Cisco announced the news internally to its employees and to the market. “He was the bravest person I knew … He gave a sales conference a short time before we announced he had cancer to 20,000 people in Vegas and it was his best presentation ever,” Chambers recalled.

Outside of Justice’s role in shaping Cisco’s sales and channels was his role in evolving Cisco’s culture. The culture shift made Cisco the company it is today, which was built on trust, Chambers said.

“The ability during tough times to instill trust with our employees, our channels, and our partners, and the ability to be transparent with what he was seeing and not spinning it -- that instilled the trust and shows you how he touched people’s lives so uniquely. He made us all better people.”

On a personal level, Chambers and Justice and their two families have been tight-knit. The longtime tech executives and their spouses enjoyed traveling and playing golf, and Chambers has coached Justice’s two sons, Dave and Greg, who both work in tech. Justice’s daughter Nicole is just like his wife, Deby, “extremely strong, wonderful, and independent,” Chambers said.

“I’ve teased Rick that his boys might achieve more than he did, and as a father, he loved that. That’s exactly what he wanted,” Chambers said.

In the last few years of his life, Justice would counsel current and former Cisco employees that received cancer diagnoses to help them through the experience, talking through the questions to ask doctors, second opinions, and what their families should expect. “He never felt sorry for himself. He always looked at the bright side. He made you a better person in your business life and in your personal life. How many people can you really say that about?” Chambers said.

Chambers shared the news of Justice’s passing on LinkedIn and Twitter on Sunday. Chuck Robbins, Cisco’s current CEO, took to Twitter on Monday to talk about Justice. “This past weekend, we lost a great man, a great leader, and, most importantly, a great friend. Rick Justice helped build [Cisco] and shape our amazing culture. He was so special to so many and an incredible mentor to me. I will be forever grateful. RIP, Rick, we miss you,” Robbins said in a tweet.

Jose Van Dijk, vice president of Partner Performance and Cisco’s Global Partner Organization, echoed the sentiment of many past and current Cisco executives on Twitter and LinkedIn this week, saying that Justice “will be missed.” Danny Trevett, vice president of Cisco’s CX Partner Model, said that Justice “helped drive an incredible culture through his authentic leadership and caring approach,” in response to Chamber’s Tweet.

A family-oriented person, Justice’s legacy is his three children Dave, Greg, and Nicole, his grandchildren, and his wife, with whom he was “glued to the hip,” Chambers said.

“No matter how prepared you are, it’s still hard,” Chambers said. ”I loved him.”